Item one: The schools may not open in Cleveland next fall because the adults voted down school financing.
Item two: In Riverside County, Calif., it is now legal to ban children from cities.
Item three: In movie houses all over America this week, another monster-child of the adult fantasy, Damien, is busily murdering the grown-ups around him.
Item four: In St. Louis, the board of education has just gone back to basics: the rattan switch.
These are four of the bulletins from the recent front lines. They are, in different ways, warnings that something has gone wrong in the most basic relationship of any society: the relationship between the community of adults and children, between the present and the future.
Adults have slowly turned inward, defensive. In places they are now voting themselves, separating themselves, even "arming" themselves, against children. They are the human signposts of the erosion, bit by bit, of a wider sense of responsibility and connection between generations.
Once upon a time - a real time - children were regarded as the inevitable, natural condition of life. They were, also, an economic necessity for families - free labor for the present, insurance for the future. In that same time, communities were smaller and more stable, and kids were looked upon as the grown-ups of the future. There was a wider, more immediate sense of the investment an entire community had in the people its children became.
Now, increasingly, parenthood is regarded as a personal, individual decision - even a "lifestyle," whatever that may be - made apart from community interests. Kids are listed not as economic assets, but economic obligations. Each year someone tallies up the cost of raising them as if they were sides of Angus beef. And each year, someone also tallies up their cost to the town or the city and wonders if they are worth it. Recently, in many places, the voters have said no.
It is no coincidence that in Cleveland, people cut taxes against schools or that the first thing lost in the wake of Proposition 13 is summer school in Los Angeles. It is not a coincidence that the voters would like most to slash aid to families with dependent children.
There is a growing belief that each family schould be on its own: a feeling that kids should be cared for totally by those Who choose to have them, and kept out of the way of the rest of the child free world.
The transience of our society makes it easier for people to dismiss the issues of the young and easier to vote selfishly along generation lines. Adults rarely think about schools or playgrounds or no-children housing until they have babies. They forget about those things when their babies are grown and gone.
It might be hard for an elderly couple, however pinched by real-estate taxes, to vote against the new school or day-care center their own grandchild needed. But their grandchildren usually live far away.
The breakup of families (which we call mobility); the fact that parenthood is seen as a personal decision; the economic independence of generations of family members - all of these things make it easier for people to choose to lower their taxes rather than raise someone else's children. They make it easier to put up legal barriers rather than welcome mats.
It is all part of the process of separation, the centrifuge of generations and community. Increasingly, under its influence, grown-ups treat kids as if they were someone else's puppies. They are to be admired when they're cute and well behaved, abhorred when they're messy or needful or expensive, and always kept off the grass of adult territory.
But when the comfortable, caring connections break down between generations, the old, fearful image recurs. Now the child is seen as a monster, a little devil capable of murder. And the adult becomes a ruler - with a rattan in his hand. The re-emergence of this hostile relationship is the second half of this story.